© Spurensucher - 11. Juni 2019

St. John's mystery: burned six times in 86 years



The town and harbour of St. John's (Newfoundland) from 1831 - A closer look reveals interesting house structures that seem to be older and may not have been built of wood. Contrary to what is described here, apart from the building situation at the Hafenkai, there are no noticeably dense buildings uphill. (image source) The construction of the basilica of St. John's was only started in 1839, therefore not in the picture here yet.


A city in Newfoundland, which is considered to be one of the oldest European cities in North America, is also so far north that the night temperatures in winter are hardly higher than 22 degrees below zero. We are talking about St. John's, which today has about 110,000 inhabitants and looks back on a strange past. The medium sized provincial city is surrounded by the sea in its exposed island location, besides the rather colder temperatures.

But that doesn't seem to have protected it from burning several times in a row in the last century. Everyone may think of his or her part when he or she objectively takes a closer look at the chronology of events and their frequency.




1st fire 1816: 

On February 12, 1816, around eight o'clock, a fire broke out in a house in part of the city (St. John's in Newfoundland) known as King's Beach, quickly spreading to adjacent houses and burning with such violence that one hundred and twenty houses of about a thousand men, women and children were destroyed before the fire could be stopped. So in the heart of the cold season, in a literally cold country (the entire coast was blocked with ice at the time), this crowd of people, apart from losing almost all their possessions, was left homeless and without means, dependent on charities. Fortunately, the fire was prevented from seriously spreading to the south side of Water Street, where all the shops were located. ... Among the destroyed buildings were the two printing works and the newly built Wesleyan Chapel. The customs house was on fire for some time, but was fortunately saved from many damages. The total loss suffered was estimated at more than one hundred thousand pounds. It is painful to quote the following passage from the letter containing a report on this catastrophic event, but it points to a fact which has too often been illustrated on similar occasions among the lowest orders of capital.
Quote: "In the midst of this terrible confusion so inevitable on such occasions, people were more concerned with plundering the unfortunate victims than with providing help and assistance in preserving property or extinguishing the flames, some of which have since been tried, convicted and publicly punished for such crimes. …"

Source: The History of Newfoundland by Charles Pedley (1863)


OK, it seems a little strange to me that such a fire could break out at temperatures below freezing. 121 houses were quite large at that time. In 1819, Lewis Amadeus Anspach made it clear that at the same time a "... violent storm was blowing from the southeast". The population, however, stood "with crossed arms" and "with an apathy shameful for the human character" in front of the fire and concentrated on plundering. Anspach speaks of 1,500 homeless people and continues: "The speed with which the houses were swallowed (by the fire) is almost unimaginable. Many of their inhabitants hardly had time to put anything on and just fled with a blanket."
Source: A History of Newfoundland Island by Lewis Amadeus Anspach (1819)


Personally it seems quite strange to me that it came so easily to a wildfire, because Anspach also speaks of "barriers of ice and snow" at this time of year, which does not surprise me any further.


He doesn't fail to mention that most of the houses were made of wood, but even here I wonder how a fire can spread so undisturbed despite storm and snow? The wood must have been quite damp. In "The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany", Volume 78, Part 1, on the other hand, it only says: "Occasional snow and rain showers, which fell during the fire, delayed the progress of the flames somewhat". Strangely enough, these did not prevent the fire. Allegedly, the storm drove the fire in front of them instead.

With a total of 12,000 inhabitants at that time, the figure of 1,500 homeless was quite high. Only one of them fell victim to the flames, the rest of the homeless found shelter in the navy in the harbour, partly directly on the ships.

The Navy seems to have been massively present at that time anyway. The reports agree that the population watched indifferently and acted like "monsters in human shape".

The matter is a long time ago, perhaps not much can be interpreted into it. However, the next fires soon followed.




2nd and 3rd fire 1817 

November 7, 1817: A second fire destroyed 260 buildings, causing 25% of the 8,000 inhabitants of St. John's became homeless; this was allegedly also known as "Winter of the Ralls", notorious for vandalism and vigilante justice committees, as the "Lower Orders" fought for their survival; "Lower Orders" are said to have been largely Roman Catholic Irish newcomers; "The Winter of Ralls" was allegedly characterized by the conflict between English Protestants and Irish Catholics throughout Newfoundland.
But how this second fire was caused is at least not publicly known.


November 21, 1817: a short time later, a further fire struck another part of the city. By the way, it is said to have been the coldest winter ever (1817/1818). This does not seem to have stopped the fire.




4th fire 1819

There is apparently a detailed report of a fire that broke out in St. John's on July 19, 1819. A number of buildings on one side of Water Street were destroyed, including all that belonged to Thomas Williams and Messrs Thomas Meagher & Co .... Wind conditions accelerated the course of the fire on the road and across to Duckworth Street. It was stopped at the same spot where the November 21, 1817 fire was stopped. The firestorm was extinguished, but great damage was done. Quote: "120 houses, warehouses and shipyards, made entirely of wood and mainly containing dry products, were completely destroyed in just over three hours..." ... Allegedly, a petition from a residents' committee to pass a law on the safety of residents from fire was then submitted.

Apparently, the focus was less on population safety than on securing weapons. The Board believes that the St. John's arsenal would be better protected from future fire accidents if "the department that has the floor area adjacent to the arsenal where a house was recently burned" were to trade this piece of land for one at King's Beach. They want Bathurst to order this exchange, thereby eliminating the danger from the orderly areas.


Source >> Link




5th fire 1846

On June 9, 1846, a carpenter in the heart of the city is said to have heated a pot of glue on a stove at 8:30 a.m. and brought it to a boil, which then caused the fire in most of the city. The fire alarm was triggered immediately, but it took 20 minutes for the fire trucks to arrive. When the firemen arrived at the scene, they could not act due to lack of water. We will encounter the same pattern again in 1892.


Here is an example of how, according to the description, the fire sought its way and made its choice.
Quote: "In the end the fire destroyed all public, religious and commercial buildings on its way. Although a Roman Catholic church, located at the back of Duckworth Street's north side, was preserved after many difficulties, the nearby Church of England Cathedral was less fortunate. So the dungeon was on the same side of this street. In fact, the flames of this building jumped across the street, igniting several stone and brick trading and legal spaces. Among the buildings destroyed here was the stone residence of Robert Prowse, the city's most important private house. From Duckworth Street, the fire branched north along King's Road, burning all the framing homes and houses along the street. In the north, however, Government House was saved."


Quote: "By 19:00, when the fire had finally taken its course, over 2,000 buildings had burned down and about 12,000 people, 57 percent of the city's total population, were homeless."


Thereupon, before the reconstruction, fire protection measures were supposed to have been initiated - as well as the requirement to build only stone houses in certain parts of the city (which, however, had apparently not helped the brick buildings in the event of the fire).

When I look at the upper drawing from 1831, I wonder how many houses must have been added in 15 years for 2,000 of them to burn in 1846. According to this, about 4,000 houses must have stood there when the fire broke out. The drawing of 1831 gives a maximum of 200 houses, if the artist has drawn exactly. But that only by the way ...




6th fire 1892

On July 8, 1892, a fire, if it was a fire, prepared all the work. Officially it is said:
"In the late afternoon a small fire broke out in a stable in St. John's after a burning pipe or a match fell into a bundle of hay. Although initially containable, the flames spread quickly due to dry weather, a disorganized fire department and poor planning by the city authorities. Within hours, the fire had destroyed almost all of St. John's, left 11,000 homeless and caused $13 million in property damage.
With its capital and destroyed trade center, Newfoundland and Labrador experienced a sudden economic downturn. Reconstruction dominated the months after the fire, costing the government more than $300,000. A local aid committee distributed clothing, food and other goods to the homeless, while a large amount of foreign aid helped the city make up for its losses. The fire caused government officials to restructure the city's fire departments and provide firefighters with better training and equipment."



Is this the result of a blazing fire? St. John's, Newfoundland after the Great Fire of 1892 (Wikimedia Commons; >> Link); It may be, but there is also a lot of garbage lying around that could have come from collapsed walls.


Here it becomes clearer: In the foreground there is an almost completely collapsed brick building. If only the flammable roof truss had been burnt, the side walls would have to remain almost intact. But you can see mountains of brick waste on the sides.



Foto: Wikimedia Commons; >> Link, I wonder, by the way, what kind of pole is in the front of the picture? It hangs across and apparently unstable in the air.


That's nothing yet. Please have a look at this picture of the page Heritage Newfundland & Labrador (>> Link):




St. John's, NL, after the fire, 1892 - The following caption is presented to us:
"Cleaning had already begun when this photo was taken, as stacks of collected bricks are visible and ready for reuse." Picture source: Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, QEII Library (Coll., Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Of course, one could conclude from this that walls have already been torn down here in order to rebuild entire buildings. But was that really the truth back then? The whole thing looks more like blasting or/and demolition to me. It reminds me more of air attacks from one of the world wars than of uncontrolled fires.



Quote: "... Around 5 pm on Friday 8 July 1892, the news reached St John's Central Fire Hall that a barn was on fire at the top of Carter's Hill. The estate belonged to Timothy Sole and was located near the corner of Freshwater and Pennywell Roads - an elevated location near the city center. Firefighters arrived at the scene 30 minutes later, but were helpless to contain the fire due to lack of water. Although there was a 113,650 litre water tank only a few metres from the stable, it was almost empty because the fire brigade had forgotten to refill it after an exercise".


Source: Heritage Neufundland & Labrador, >> Link



A series of fake fires?

To me personally, it sounds as if someone wanted to make fun of the future historians. After so many fires, can something like this really happen that the local fire brigade comes across empty water tanks - in midsummer, after so many bad experiences and in an environment of unlimited water areas? Nobody really has to tell me that ... sorry.


It continues: "From the Solefarm the fire swept down Carter's Hill and along Freshwater Road until it split into two parts at the junction of Harvey Road and Long's Hill. The rapid (fire) progress alarmed the city's inhabitants, and at six o'clock many began to store their valuables in the Anglican cathedral, the Methodist church of Gower Street, and other stone or brick structures they believed could withstand the flames. However, as the fire moved into the city center, it destroyed many of these structures; the Anglican cathedral suffered so much damage that it took the workers more than 10 years to complete its restoration."


But it gets even harder: "The ships in the port, on the other hand, sailed out of the reach of the advancing flames, which quickly destroyed all the quay facilities and their contents." Have you heard anything like that before? A fire destroys quay facilities? What kind of heat must it have been that even the ships sailed away from the fire ... ?


Wikipedia describes the 1892 fire as follows: "By a series of catastrophic coincidences, however, the fire spread and swallowed practically the entire eastern end of the city, including much of the large industrial estate, before it was extinguished." The alleged witness of the initial stage of the fire, Rev. Moses Harvey, remarked ... that it was "a bad day for a fire" (he probably meant "a good one"). A strong wind from the northwest blew and blew the sparks far and wide onto the roofs of the wooden houses. A month ago it had hardly rained, and the shingle roofs were dry like tinder. "... The situation was intensified by the work on the water supply completed earlier that day. ... An alleged witness, WJ Kent, stated that the water pressure two hours before the fire at 3 pm was not sufficient to push water into the upper parts of the city where the fire broke out. "Very strong westerly winds fanned the fire furiously and began to spread rapidly."


So let's sum it up: There was no water at the decisive point and the water pressure was not sufficient at the other point ... ? What one coincidentally noticed two hours before the fire ... ?


In epic language, alleged witnesses reported the decline of St. John the Baptist Cathedral: "With an anxious onslaught, the demonic fire seized the doomed cathedral, and as soon as the tongue hinted at it, a jewel of Gothic architecture was the masterpiece of Sir Gilbert Scott and the pride of every Newfoundlander a seething mass of flame. With a crack that could be heard even above the noise of the elements, the roof collapsed, and the result of the years of effort and sacrifice of thousands disappeared into a cloud of smoke and dust."


CBC writes: "The fire of 1892 is often seen as the transforming event in downtown St. John's. The fire is often seen as a symbol of the transformation of the city. And although it has changed the street scene in many ways, the fire may not be as important as many people think.

That sounds to me very much like appeasement and cover-up of events. One always speaks only in isolation of one fire, without looking at the whole thing in context or wanting to look at it.



View from Signal Hill to the city, St. John's, Newfoundland, around 1900; Wikimedia Commons Link (on the top of the mountain the basilica, intact from all fires until today; the building is also from the middle of the 19th century)


Wikimedia Commons: The Basilica of St. John the Baptist, as viewed from The Battery in St. John's; Link




In another mainstream article on CBC News from 2017, CBC writes: "The fact that we have streets that aren't close and close together, as you would see in European cities, is because after the fire, city planners were able to level some of the streets, expand them and make St. John's the city it is today." (Statement by historian Dale Jarvis). One is not tired of insisting on this aspect in this article (>> Link).

Jarvis rumbled and made it clear that the overloading of the houses before the fire of 1892 was the reason why the devastation reached such a dimension.
Quote: "There had been a fire in 1846 and there were recommendations that we have to dismantle the houses further, we need firebreaks, the streets have to have a minimum width, and people said 'nonsense, we will never have a big fire, it doesn't matter'."


Personally, I can hardly imagine that people back then were so stupid and acted as if there had never been a fire in the city before - after what they had already experienced.


For me, this sounds more like the deliberate removal of an old town, which under no circumstances was allowed to remain as it was at the beginning of the 19th century. Such a sequence of coincidences and absurdities is no longer comprehensible to me. There will be a reason why hardly anyone notices the numerous fire-breasts of St. John's before 1892. The whole thing is forgotten and there are hardly any reliable objective sources from this time. Instead, the last firestorm, if it was one at all, is almost declared as an urban development measure.


Interesting also the statements of alleged witnesses (Wikipedia), which sound rather like "terror", than after a fire inferno, which had inflamed accidentally.

Quote: "The fire continued into the night and into the early hours of the morning. Reverend Harvey's description of the troubled night states that 'the terror-stricken residents' fleeing from 'the destroyer'...the cries of weeping women rushing with their children to places of safety - all a scene not even Dante's pen could describe."


Kent said something similar about that night:

"All the arteries that led from the water to the higher parts of the city were full of the terrorized mob and the screams of the women, that mingled with the lamentation of children, the screams, intensified by the ever refreshing masses of malignant fire and the glow of burning buildings, helped to create a scene like this, of which not many witnesses are aware........ There were few who closed their eyes that night."


Further statements from the same source:
"The daybreak on the morning of 9 July 1892 showed the full extent of the devastation of the fire. Kent described the sight of the residents who saw the desolation:

As morning dawned, the thick clouds of smoke still rose from the burning ruins, and it took hours for them to sufficiently disperse to take a look at the trail of the desolate scourge. A walk through the abandoned streets showed that the destruction was even more complete than it initially seemed possible. There was hardly a building left of the whole eastern section..... of the costly and imposing buildings and public buildings that were the pride and glory of the people, hardly a remnant remained; and St. John's lay in the morning as a city robbed of its beauty, its noblest ornament, an image of total desolation and ache..."


Rev. Harvey presents a similar description:
The next morning I took a walk around the terrible scene of devastation. It was heartbreaking. Nothing is visible a mile from Devon Row except chimneys and fallen and shaky walls. The thick smoke, from the smouldering ruins, still filled the air.... The symbols of religion stood out, then broken walls pointing skywards, as in sad protest against the desecration that had been committed.

And the poor citizens, where were they? It made the heart ache to see the groups of men, women, and children with tired, bloodshot eyes and smoky faces standing over their furniture and clothing leftovers - some of them sleeping on the floor in total exhaustion - all with depression on their faces. They filled the park and the area around the city. Many hundreds escaped with nothing but the clothes they wore.... At least twelve thousand people became homeless."


Sources >> Link



16th century pipes and an untouched bank building


A jump into modern times: A partial clay pipe found in the bay of Bishop's Cove is the oldest piece found during the modernization of the canal system. The local archaeologist Temple believes it dates from the late 16th century.

That doesn't really fit the tradition. In "The Newfoundland Museum: Origins and Development," John E. Maunder describes St. John's at the beginning of the 19th century as "...a rude, dirty and disorganized small fishing village and military garrison of about 5000 souls.... a literary and cultural desert...".


Maunder continues that the founding of the first St. John's newspaper in 1807 awakened interest in literacy and education. He notes that within the first three months of the newspaper, ads for new schools appeared on its pages.
Another paper was published until 1810, and shortly thereafter the St. John's Subscription Library was founded. By 1820, the subscription library was replaced by the new Saint John's Library Society, which offered a public reading room in the Masonic Tavern.
"Gradually, the craftsmen and other professionals of the fast-growing city realized the benefits of creating "learned societies," where ideas could be shared, knowledge acquired, and acquaintances made," wrote Maunder.
In 1851, the St. John's Athenaeum emerged from the merger of three groups that focused on building the "learned societies" Maunder describes: the Literary Society and the Young Men's Scientific Institute, the St. John's Library and Reading Room, and the Mechanics Institute.


The Athenaeum was a combination of library, lecture hall and museum. Like today's libraries, it was an important cultural and community centre. Many documents indicate the physical size of the building, which was located on Duckworth Street, where the Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Museum was later to be built.

Louise Whiteway describes the interior in 'The Dalhousie Review' as: "The building was artfully Victorian in style and the hall was particularly magnificent. The dome-shaped ceiling was arranged in eight panels, surrounded by painted stucco strips.... Shakespeare, Raphael, Sir Walter Scott and Edmund Burke were painted larger than life size. The horizontal part of the ceiling was painted in gold and colours and surrounded by a wreath of roses and leaves".


The library had about 2500 books at its opening, and the collection eventually grew to about 6000 books. The Auditorium of the Athenaeum had room for 1000 people and presented a popular series of lectures, often with choral music after a speaker.

In addition to a reading room and a lecture series, the Athenaeum housed natural history exhibitions. According to Larry Dohey's "Archival Moments," a 1886 exhibition of a Bullmoose skull caused a lot of excitement in St. John's. Moose are not native to Newfoundland. They only became native ten years later when the government imported two specimens from Nova Scotia.


Then it came to the fire in 1892 and of course the Athenaeum and its contents also fell victim to it. As coincidence would have it, the Union Bank next door was one of the few buildings completely untouched by the fire.


Soon after the fire, a less noticeable Athenaeum was built and quickly filled with donated books, demonstrating the city's passion for the shared consumption of art and culture. An enthusiasm that was rekindled last fall when our public libraries were threatened by closures. (Background: The government is obviously still very interested in the continuing dulling of the local population, especially since fires are no longer so common. In autumn 2016, Newfoundland and the liberal government of Labrador threatened to close dozens of public libraries in the province. The population responded to the plan with obvious outrage.)


Sources: The Overcast; >> Link




In this film you can see the old Athenaeum, which stood very close to the right bank building that was miraculously spared from the flames.


The series of strange fires that occurred frequently in the 19th century, which led above all (also) to the downfall of the old buildings, show strange patterns of repetition. In addition, many buildings tend to look deliberately burned or bombed out rather than accidentally destroyed. Which events actually took place there is likely to remain a mystery. The fire descriptions and adverse circumstances as well as the frequency of these fires within a relatively short period of time distract from my point of view from the actual events.


The National Post brings it to the point with striking headlines like 'Like an atomic bomb had gone off' and 'It was like a war zone' in my opinion (article).


If you have plausible explanations or ideas for these unnaturally heaped coincidences, please let me know. Even better, if you can add further sources to it.